After my run of Terra Nova recaps, I’ve kept the same time slot for J.J. Abram’s latest project, Alcatraz. While I was generally down on Spielberg’s dinosaur show, I do know that if history repeats itself Alcatraz should have at least one really good season. Possibly two if it doesn’t rely on flashbacks and maybe even three if there are no misbegotten time jumps.
Well there is a time jump, but it’s the plot of the show so I can’t hold that against it. And there are flashbacks (to 1960s Alcatraz), but it’s too early to tell if they will overwhelm the shofw or if they will be phased out. Even though the flashback at the end of the second episode actually did create a pretty good cliffhanger, the majority of them only gave us mediocre-at-best insights into the prisoner-of-the-week (more on that later).
Before getting into the episodes themselves, I have to say Alcatraz provided a decent opening and already appears more solid than its predecessor, Terra Nova. The main actors are better, particularly Sam Neill as Emerson Hauser, the person behind Team Alcatraz. He offers a controlled menace along with his leadership and intelligence that I felt was severely lacking in Stephen Lang’s portrayal of Commander Nathaniel Taylor in the earlier show. Parminder Nagra brings class and charm to Hauser’s assistant Lucy. Whether or not you grew tired of Hurley in Lost, Jorge Garcia, who plays Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto, is an affable enough performer and one who can sell comedic lines. However, I thought that the entire super-genius-who-writes-and-sells-comic-books played a bit too hard to the geek crowd. Oddly enough, Sarah Jones as show protagonist San Francisco Detective Rebecca Mader makes the least impression, but she’s not loathsome…yet. Here’s hoping she doesn’t go Sarah Linden on us. Alcatraz created a decent ambiance, and its mysteries seem interesting if not obsessively compelling, but there are reservations.
The premise behind the show revolves around the 300+ prisoners and guards who disappeared from Alcatraz back in the 1960s. Hauser, one of the cops who discovered the abandoned facility, has apparently devoted his entire life to discovering why these people vanished. Furthermore, he has set up a “bat cave” with a super computer underneath The Rock and a newer Alcatraz in the middle of the woods somewhere. For at least three months, the missing have started returning to wreak havoc on the citizens of San Francisco.
My biggest issue comes with the “prisoner-of-the-week” formula that was present in both the Pilot and the second episode, Ernest Cobb, which also aired tonight. To be fair, there genuinely seems to be plot movement as prisoner Jack Sylvane from episode 1 makes a reappearance being questioned by Lucy in episode 2. However and unfortunately, the main storyline in both episodes involves Mader and Soto tracking down Alcatrazians after they restart their crime sprees by using standard TV investigation techniques and dime store psychology. You throw in the flashback element, which could easily fall into Lost‘s trappings without the excuse of being about characters we’re supposed to care about, and this does not entirely work for me. While I can accept this as a placeholder until Alcatraz works out its kinks, I don’t believe in its long-term viability.
Going after different criminals every week in a “procedural” style can become very redundant very quickly especially for a show that promotes itself as being different. Just because they’re criminals from the 1960s doesn’t make them as any more dangerous than modern lawbreakers. If anything, they come across as less dangerous since they’re not aware of modern crime solving techniques, and the good guys have a supercomputer. Maybe they were trained to avoid detection in wherever they’ve been for the past 50 years, but a) they can’t remember anything from the lost years and b) it’s still a whole new world they’re navigating. You’d expect at least a couple of them to get tripped up by cell phones and security cameras. And I’m sure at least one of them would just be glad to get a second chance at life. Anyway, I guess this will all be explained in time.
Overall, Alcatraz works enough to warrant seeing how it evolves for a few episodes at least. I’m willing to let its mysteries play out and not demand answers for what the criminals’ keys mean. I don’t need to know who kidnapped the Alcatrazians just yet or how they spent their half-century vacation. And I’m not going to guess about any of these things as I don’t have nearly enough information to make even the sloppiest presumption. All I can do for now is hope that the procedural angle and the flashbacks die down soon enough for the show to blossom into something truly unique.
• I honestly never notice these things, but Mader’s haircut was really unflattering in the first episode. Less so in the second.
• I do like the 1950s-style crime movie “theme” for Alcatraz. However, the clanging cell door to indicate flashbacks got annoying by the middle of the first episode.
• Part of San Francisco Detective Mader’s baggage involves watching her partner die from falling off a roof three months prior to the start of the episode proper, which left her distant and unable to focus on her job. I’d like to believe that this was an homage to Vertigo. The person who pushed her partner off the roof being a time jumping Alcatrazian- not so much. But 12 Monkeys involved time travel and that also paid obvious respect to the Hitchcock classic.
• Hauser claims to work for the feds, but it’s left open as to whether he actually does or not. I doubt it, but I guess Mader will find out when she gets her next paycheck.
• When Rebecca meets Soto she says, “PhDs in criminal justice and Civil War history. Four books on Alcatraz.” It’s the type of bad expository dialogue you expect in a pilot, but it still sticks out.
• Speaking of which, you’d think someone who wrote four books on Alcatraz would discover that there were no records of any of the prisoners after the closing of the facility in 1963. He didn’t try to interview any of its former convicts about their experiences? He had no suspicions that something wasn’t on the up-and-up? I know, I know. Give it time, give it time.
• I want more use of Robert Forster as Mader’s uncle simply because he’s Robert Forster.
• Did anyone think that the guy playing Ernest Cobb was channeling a bit much of Ben Linus, even if he looked like Giovanni Ribisi?
• People seemed too easygoing while out in a large public space following Cobb’s second public shooting.
• The Warden was way too stereotypical.